A new podcast series from the New York Times makes a simple observation – that the single most powerful force in American public schools are concerned white people. Over five episodes, ‘Nice White Parents’ argues that most of the problems that exist from an equalities perspective in US education, from racial segregation to achievement gaps, can be traced back to white parents’ ability to mobilise and shape the system to suit their interests.
With their elected school boards and enhanced parental choice, the US schools’ system is, arguably, far more democratic than what we have in Britain. This sounds laudable, particularly for those of us who have promoted the democratisation of public services in this country. However, this podcast presents an overwhelming body of evidence to show that the effect of people power in the US system has been to serve racist and classist agendas, with disastrous consequences. Aside from its obvious immorality, this should be particularly distressing to British audiences as we have, over the last ten years, imported many aspects of US schools’ policy, not least Free Schools, which were based on American Charter Schools.
What ‘Nice White Parents’ shows us is the slippery slope that can exist between democracy – which gives everyone a say – and majoritarianism – which legitimises larger groups pursuing their interests at the expense of smaller groups. This is something that is normally thought about at very large scales, for example the ways in which democracy enables Hindu nationalism and the persecution of Muslims in India – but this podcast should open our eyes to the ways in which this tension can play out in the micro, within policy areas and within local communities.
Dealing with this requires careful thought for organisations like NLGN, who have promoted community power, and the democratisation and localisation of public services. Whilst I of course do not have all the answers, some potential places to start as we reckon with this problem include the following:
- The Role of Community Mobilisation: Community mobilisation is the process of a community coming together to identify objectives and create plans. It is a process which necessarily draws people into discussion, and attempts to reach all corners of a community. As such, and as we detailed in one of our recent reports, it is through this process that you lay the ground work for successfully unleashing community power.
Engaging in initiatives to promote mobilisation should be seen as an essential precondition to check off before you democratise public services, as this will help ensure that any new democratic structures do not become monopolised by those with the loudest voices, or with the resources that allow them to move faster than others.
- Democratic forums vs deliberative processes: One thing that ‘Nice White Parents’ demonstrates is the ways in which that democratic forums (like PTA boards) can be hijacked by small groups, who then fail to act in the wider interests of the community. It also shows the hugely corrupting power that less formal channels of influence can have. A potential remedy for this is to think less about engagement and setting up new forums/channels, and more about deliberation. Deliberative processes have strict standards for ensuring legitimate results, and through rigorous standardisation and formalisation, should have a better chance at avoiding being co-opted by elite groups. Interestingly, this is something that is hinted at in the final episode of the podcast, where they touch on an initiative that is producing some encouraging early results.
- Defining ‘community’: Arguably, the groups of privileged white parents who have caused so many problems in the US schools’ system can be seen as a cohesive community. They have particular goals, and they know how to come together in order to accomplish their aims. The trouble is that the services they are using to promote their own interests are not meant to serve small groups; they are meant to serve everyone. What this shows us is the importance of defining what kinds of communities you are interested in engaging with when you talk about community power in a particular area. When it comes to universal services like schools, it seems to me that you have to deal with communities of place, as, in this instance, there is no community of interest that can claim to have a greater cause to be listened to than any other. With other areas, for example addiction services, the opposite is true. Being clear about what you mean by ‘community’ is something that needs clarity and thought.
Democracy is an immensely powerful force, and would be a transformational one to unleash on Britain’s public services. It is not, however, innately and unquestionably positive one hundred percent of the time. The good, progressive, and socially just effects of democracy need to be deliberately nurtured, and potentially majoritarian and destructive impulses need to be curtailed, so that everyone’s voice is heard.
Democratise public service? Yes. But tread carefully.